Through some of the most formative years of their children’s lives, parents are often the most consistent example of what it means to be human, to be a mature adult. And while we all know that parents can pass on negative impressions to their children, they also have the potential, and perhaps the responsibility, to expose their children to a healthy, fruitful way of living in our world. In this sense, I think that every parent has the potential to be a child’s hero.
My dad has always been my biggest hero.
My mom tells me that, when I was very young, Dad would strap me into a backpack so I could ride along with him as he hiked through the forest trails around our house. At age five he taught me to play soccer—a game he’s loved all his life—and began to take me skiing with him on the weekends. When he drove me to high school every morning, we listened to National Public Radio, often prompting discussions about politics, current events, and pop culture. He would ask me who I would vote for long before I was eighteen. When my dad and I drove from Seattle to California for my freshman year at Santa Clara, we stopped in Ashland, Oregon to see “King Lear” together because we had enjoyed Shakespeare together since I was a little girl.
What did these memories teach me about being human? About being a mature adult? Many things, really. I think the most important thing I learned from my dad’s companionship will surprise you, though. More than anything else, I am deeply grateful to my dad for teaching me how to be a woman. Yes, a woman.
You see, when I was in second grade, boys on the playground teased me incessantly about my enthusiasm for school. But as my eight-year-old classmates assured me that a girl could never be as smart as a boy, my dad was asking my opinion about the latest art gallery we visited. When I was picked last for the kickball team because the girls were always picked last, I went home to my father, who took me to the high school field on Saturday mornings to teach me to kick the soccer ball as high and as far as he could. While teen magazines told me that my greatest concerns should be make-up and boys, time and time again, my father would look up from the easy chair in our living room to tell me about the biography he read in his lap, and to ask me about the latest novel I read in mine.
While growing up in a world where young women are still explicitly and implicitly informed that their gender inhibits life’s possibilities, my father consistently communicated that there are no boundaries—especially gendered boundaries—to the ambitions and accomplishments I could pursue. This was not something we spoke about very often, but the message was reinforced constantly—every time my dad tossed aside society’s messages about girls for the sake of talking to me, listening to me, encouraging me, challenging me—on issues other than just “girly” things.
So in honor of my dad and the celebration of Father’s Day this year, I want to ask you: What are the questions you ask your daughters? The biological and non-biological ones? What parts of your life do you invite them to engage? And what does all of that communicate about the limits—or limitlessness—of their womanhood?
Thanks, Dad, for asking. Thanks, Dad, for sharing.
Jessica Coblentz thanks Mick McCarthy SJ and St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco for commissioning the original version of this reflection for their ministry with fathers. She now writes from Seattle where she prepares for graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.blogspot.com.